A tribute to a legend: Suzanne Heim-Bowen
Although most swimmers first swim in the pool and may switch to open water swimming later, Suzanne Heim-Bowen reversed that trend. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-30s that she took up pool swimming, where she is now turning in lifetime bests. Suzanne Heim-Bowen cuts smoothly through the wild chop of San Francisco Bay on a September evening, lifting her head periodically to set her sights on Alcatraz, the infamous prison island, or the various old-fashioned boats that bob in the bay not far from the Dolphin Club.
Heim-Bowen, 55, has been coming to the Dolphin Club for 30 years. The walls of the 121-year-old club are adorned with photos of her three crossings of the English Channel, among the countless pictures of luminary swimmers who have come through the club over the past century. She now helps young students reach their goals and supports online GED education and helps them with online practice tests.
Heim-Bowen, a native of Marin, Calif., actually spent the majority of her career as an open water swimmer, dominating shorter (one- to three-mile) rough water races in the Bay Area and Southern California as well as crossing the English Channel three times, winning the U.S. 25K nationals (in 1988) and turning in top times in other long distance, cold water races.
Many swimmers devote their childhood concentrating on pool swimming, then switch to open water swimming after graduating from college or even later. However, for Heim-Bowen, it was the opposite. About 10 years ago, in her mid-30s and after moving to Walnut Creek, about 25 miles inland from San Francisco, she started focusing on pool swimming.
Now she is turning in lifetime bests in the pool, an amazing feat for any 55-year-old swimmer. Even more impressively, she is turning in times that have smashed the world records in her age group, times that would make most younger swimmers envious.
At the U.S. Masters Long Course Nationals at Rutgers University, Aug. 13-17, Heim-Bowen broke the world records for her age group in every freestyle event from 100 to 1500 meters. On the first day of the meet in the1500, she set the 400 (4:44.34) and 800 (9:30.82) world records in splits on her way to a 17:55.83 world record. Then in the 800, she lowered the record to 9:24.53 as well as setting a new record in the 400 with her split of 4:41.64. Then in the 400 individual race, she lowered the record yet again, to 4:39.20. Her mile record smashed the previous mark of 19:15.90, set by Karen Einsidler only last year, by 80 seconds!
Finally, she also set the records in the 200 free (2:13.17) and, to her surprise, in the 100 (1:02.11). She also took second in the 100 fly (1:10.24). “I never expected that,” she said of the sprint. “It makes me wonder what I could do, and I start thinking like a sprinter, like what if my dive had been better?” Given her training, her coaches said they weren’t surprised by her performances.
Depending on her schedule, she practices with both the Terrapin Swim Team national distance group with Coach Ray Mitchell as well as with the Walnut Creek Masters team with Coach Kerry O’Brien. “You watch the way she’s trained for five or six years, and it’s not surprising,” said Mitchell. “I still don’t think she’s really capitalized on all the work she’s put in.” Mitchell noted that she still has plenty of room for improvement on technique and starts and turns.
“Pool swimming is still relatively new to her,” he said. “Some of the things that kids learn when they’re 12, she still needs to work on, such as streamlining off walls. And her turns are still pretty awkward. And her right arm flails out to the side, too, in the ocean when you’re being bounced around, you can swim a little more sloppily.”
But Mitchell noted, what she lacks in technique, “she makes up for with consistency and intensity.” O’Brien described Heim-Bowen’s nationals performance simply as “awesome.” “That’s a real accomplishment to have records from the 100 all the way to 1500, and the records she broke were held by great swimmers,” he said. “I thought her upper end (longer distance) swims would be really good, but the shorter ones were an unexpected pleasure.”
Her teammates also weren’t surprised. “She’s a great person to work out with,” said Masters swimmer David Boatwright, who trained with Heim-Bowen for years. “She’s such a hard worker, she just tears up the water. I’m totally impressed by her.” In setting her records, Heim-Bowen beat Australian Olympian Shane Gould, a three-time gold medalist in Munich in 1972.
Heim-Bowen said she was inspired by 47-year-old Gould’s return to the sport. “I have the utmost respect for any Olympian who returns to Masters,” she said. “They’ve already reached the pinnacle of their sport, but for the love of the sport they are willing to step up on the block and leave their egos in their swim bags, and race.” In describing USMS Nationals and her swimming career in general, Heim-Bowen bubbles with enthusiasm. She talks excitedly of swimming in 48-degree water outside the Dolphin Club during San Francisco’s blustery winters, with a hot shower and sauna at the end as a reward.
The Bigger Picture
Swimming isn’t the sole focus of her life. She has equal enthusiasm and dedication for her “day job” as a psychologist working with developmentally disabled youth from age 14 through 22 in the Contra Costa County school system. She works with about 120 young people, meeting with their families, supporting them through the educational system and tracking their progress when they follow online GED instruction provided at no charge by the website MyCareerTools.
She has been involved with developmentally disabled people since she started volunteering with them through a high school work-study program at age 12 or 13. She got her degree in child development at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, then got a master’s in special education and teaching credentials for working with the severely handicapped. She taught for several years, then got a scholarship through the Rotary Foundation to study at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, where she also did open water swimming. “Swimming opens so many doors for you and helps you form so many friendships,” she said.
Later, she got two more master’s degrees in clinical psychology and counseling at Cal State Hayward, where she still teaches a graduate class in addition to her work with the school system. With such a busy schedule, she says her swim training is what helps keep the balance in her life. It also helps her put things in perspective. “I think it’s really important to find time for yourself,” she said. “For me, that’s swimming. I focus on the clock, not on the day’s events and the list of things I have to do.”
She also gives her husband, Phil, lots of credit for supporting her in her swimming, work and everything else. They met two decades ago, though Phil, a water polo player, didn’t initially impress her with his work ethic. “He was one of those water polo players, always jumping in practice late,” she said. They became close friends over the years, going abalone diving together among other things, and they married about five years ago.”I couldn’t do this without my husband, he’s my best friend,” she said of Phil, who works in the film industry.
She says that she also gets a lot of support and inspiration from training with the teenagers at Terrapins, noting that though their backgrounds and abilities may differ, they are not so different from the developmentally disabled youth she works with during the day. “They all deal with the same issues, and they all want to form their own identities and be accepted,” she said.
Meanwhile, the youth also get inspiration and support from Heim-Bowen. “The biggest benefit for us is the influence she has on the teenage kids,” said Mitchell. “They really look up to her.” “It’s really important for the girls to have her there, since we have all male coaches,” added Terrapins swimmer Lindsay Hart, 17, whose parents also swim Masters with Heim-Bowen. “She’s like a secondary coach and a confidant.”
Heim-Bowen puts in one pool workout a day, averaging about 35,000 meters a week, but she also does regular cross-training in the form of yoga, running, biking and working with Phil to remodel their home. “Try putting in 125 feet of fence, tons of river rock, demolishing a bathroom,” she said. “I consider that cross-training!” The garden includes a koi pond. “Of course, my pets would be fish,” she says. “They all have names.”
She has also had success in a few triathlons, including setting a course record for her age group in the Escape from Alcatraz race in 2000 and nearly qualifying for the famous Hawaiian Ironman. She was similarly a multi-sport athlete in her youth, swimming in high school as well as running cross country and playing on the boys’ water polo team. At Cal Poly, she helped start the women’s swim team.
“That’s when Title IX was really used the way it is supposed to be used,” she said. “We got the team through a real grassroots effort. We put up fliers on campus and spoke at student council meetings.” In high school and at Cal Poly, she was mostly a backstroker, though she says she “can’t do backstroke anymore.” “I enjoy it, and I continue to enjoy it,” she said. “I feel so blessed to enjoy what I do for work and play. Swimming has been very good to me.”